Shishmaref, Alaska is a remote village of about 600 people located 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle, flanked by the Chukchi Sea to the north and an inlet to the south. It sits atop rapidly melting permafrost and in the last decades, the island's shores have been eroding into the sea, falling off in giant chunks whenever a big storm hits. Sarichef Island, on which Shishmaref is located, is part of a dynamic, 100 km-long barrier island chain that is fully exposed to storm surges and tidal variations. Despite relatively intense infrastructure developments during the 20th century and multiple shoreline defencee structures which were built at beginning of the 1970s, the shorelines continues to crumble under the pressure of weather and ice.
As water temperatures have increased, the Chukchi Sea stays frozen for ever shorter periods each year, exposing the shoreline to the winter storms which accelerate the erosion of the fragile coast. Around 10 feet of land on the island's seaside coast are lost each year to erosion. Clinging onto this narrow strip of land surrounded by water on all sides will soon become impossible. According to the 2010 census, there were 563 inhabitants living in Shishmaref, a traditional Inupiaq village which relies on seals, walrus, caribou, mouse and birds for much of its food. In 2002, the village voted to be relocated.
Yet there are no concrete plans and, more importantly, no federal funds to move the entire community to safer ground. The cost of this operation is estimated at USD 180 million with a site at nearby Tin Creek already identified as a potential location for the relocated community. Since the initial vote to move, however, the village population seems to have lost the inclination to seek safer ground and it watching the sea and receding coastline wearily, waiting to see what will happen next.
The village is already strewn with toppled huts and crumbling wooden shacks that failed to withstand the extreme forces of nature. The sea is encroaching on commercial and residential properties, only briefly halted by the deep freeze during the winter months.
The danger for Shishmaref's unique culture, which is valued around Alaska for its high quality seal oil, fermented meat and whalebone and walrus ivory carvings, is that it will be diluted and ultimately disappear if the villagers get dispersed among other communities in this remote part of Alaska. Clifford Weyiouanna, a life long resident of Shishmaref, says that when "white people" arrived in the community, locals were told that their traditional dances where the work of the Devil. They were told not to speak their own language and desist from their traditional life. Now it is nature that is threatening the very existence of this small community.